International Incident

Folio Weekly | October 17, 2006

Fans of HBO’s “Da Ali G Show” understand this about actor/comedian Sacha Baron Cohen: He’s a fearless improviser capable of inhabiting a character so deeply as to disarm his subjects, eliciting the most human of responses in the most uncomfortable situations. That, and he’s absolutely hilarious.

As Ali G, Cohen plays a half-wit pseudo-gangsta rapper from Britain who interviews everyone from Donald Trump and Boutros Boutros-Ghali. His questions are intentionally vapid, engineered to lead his subjects down a path of dumbness from which they long to disengage themselves. Cohen also plays a gay Austrian fashionista Bruno, an equally abrasive character who pegs just about everyone he interviews as the homophobes that they really are. But perhaps the most loveable — and most believable — of Cohen’s fabrications is Borat Sagdiyev, a television journalist from the remote Middle Eastern nation of Kazakhstan.

Borat is sweetly ignorant of American culture and customs, but he wants to learn, so he packs his satchel and heads to the “U.S. and A.” for a crash course in the life in the Western world. He’s a misogynist and rabid anti-Semite (though himself Cohen is Jewish), as evidenced by his song “Throw The Jew Down The Well,” which, during one segment, he coaxes an entire bar into singing.

On “Da Ali G Show,” Borat made one, maybe two appearances per episode. Still, the lanky reporter with the smelly suit and the bushy moustache has garnered his own feature film. In his new movie, Borat begins filming his government-funded documentary in his tiny Kazakhstani village, where he introduces his girlfriends, makes out with his sister, and feuds with his wife and obnoxious neighbor. He also documents the “Running of the Jew” festival, in which a big-headed, green-faced devil runs through the town followed by his even more hideous wife, who lays a giant egg, which the town’s children then beat with sticks.

That’s within the first five minutes.

When Borat arrives in New York, he immediately raises the ire of subway riders by attempting to kiss them hello, a traditional salutation in Kazakhstan. He also masturbates and defecates in public, and runs off a number of pedestrians by simply saying hi. It is also in New York that Borat views an episode of “Baywatch” and falls in love with Pamela Anderson. Thus his quest is set in motion — to travel to California to find and propose to the buxom beauty.

Borat and his “producer,” Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) head West in a used ice cream truck, along the way staging interviews, hanging out with frat boys in an RV, getting saved at a heartland mega-church and running nude through a business convention.

Fans may find the imposed love story a bit cumbersome, but watching Cohen work is so delightful it’s easy to overlook the staged scenes, or at the very least, incorporate them into the theater-of-the-absurd mindset required to view such material. Those unfamiliar with Borat will have a more difficult time getting through the film. At the screening held in Jacksonville, Fla. (the first test screening in the state), several people walked out while others openly expressed dismay. Though Borat is blissfully innocent in his ignorance, he is also capable of great offense. He smashes to bits hundreds of dollars worth of glassware at an antique store, presents a bag full of his own feces at the table at a high-society dinner and throughout the film expresses disdain for Jews and women.

The true beauty of what Cohen does, regardless of the character he plays, lies in his ability to strip away the veneer and get to the real. Initially, his subjects try to be kind, but when pushed to their limits, they turn into the raving jerks we all can sometime be. The surreal adventure that is “Borat” should be savored for its successes, for soon Borat, like Ali G, will soon be too big to be ignored, and Cohen will have to go back to the drawing board to create yet another set of characters.

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